Category: Sunshine Week

40 years fighting for our right to know

THIS BLOG POST IS A GUEST EDITORIAL.  

Author: Harriet E. Cady

I am writing this in response to Sunshine Week in NH and the country.  As we have just had town and school meetings in the majority of towns I am well aware of information withheld from the voters.

As a citizen who has won some and lost some right to know cases, my skin had to thicken because of the personal attacks you take in order to make the public officials obey the law.  The oath they take appears to mean nothing to many elected officials but rather their idea of what is right or even what they think is right taking precedence over citizen’s rights or the laws.

In 1974 I took my school board to court for violating the Right-to-Know law because they refused to give my Learning Disabled son an IEP behind closed doors.  I was shaking in my high heels to think I was having to talk with and answer the Judge’s questions, refute the school’s attorney, who I must say wasn’t able to do much against the minutes they kept which proved my case.  Just had to have the Judge review their non public minutes and show the letter they had the Superintendent send to me.

But now for the most heart breaking part, the public officials who have with a vengeance attack any citizen who dares to take them to court for violating their oath.  The lies they tell the community about you as a person and how you have “Cost” the towns taxpayers so much in legal fees and most citizens don’t even ask officials the question “if you obeyed the law would the citizen have taken you to court?”

Although RSA 91-A protects citizens Right to Know it is left to the citizen and newspapers to enforce the law.  There is nothing to stop the lies the leadership in the community will tell people what a bad person you are and since they are elected leaders, most often they are believed without question.

So what do we do? Are we the only ones to enforce the law?  Do we let them violate it until something really bad happens?  How about a person who commits suicide after being made to look horrible for asking questions of the officials at their meetings? Is the loss of his life enough?

Unfortunately I don’t have an answer for how many people have suffered the tales told by elected officials who don’t like being sued under the Right-to-Know Law.  However, I do know the people who avoid me for daring to enforce my rights and who have listened to false tales about how I have cost the taxpayers $500,000.  Actual costs have been nearer $50,000 for the lawyer who defended the town in the 6 cases of which I won 4.

Not once have I heard anyone say back, “Well if they broke the law how could she make them obey the law other than going to court?”  Will we ever get an Attorney General who can enforce our right to know when a citizen brings proof of violations?  Why does the Attorney General’s office have a division of Public Integrity if not to make elected officials obey the state’s statutes?  Once again, a business owner who dared to post the truth about our right to know has seen retaliation by people stating others shouldn’t do business with her.  So even though 40 years ago the Office of Civil rights found the school violated my son’s educational rights, and the court found they violated the Right-to-Know law, officials are still not obeying the Right-to-Know law and the person who stood up for her rights has become a victim with attacks on her business.  Guess that will fix us who dare to question those who ask to be elected by us so they can serve and who take an oath to uphold the laws of the state of NH and the NH and US Constitution.   First we must pay the taxes for the lawyer to defend them and then take the communities condemnation for daring to make an elected official do that which they took an oath to do!   How dare we ask them to obey the law and adhere to what they swore to do!

Harriet Cady is a founding member of Right to Know New Hampshire and a resident of Deerfield.  She can be emailed at righttoknownh@gmail.com

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Sunshine Week enthusiasm grows

Last week citizens across the country and New Hampshire took part in Sunshine Week by celebrating their rights to an open government.

Sunshine Week has ended but enthusiasm for a more open and transparent government continues.

During Sunshine Week, Right to Know NH (RTKNH) participated in the following events and radio broadcasts:

EVENTS:

Training and panel discussion on the Right-to-Know Law organized by the New England First Amendment Coalition and hosted by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and held in Manchester.

 

Training and workshop on the Right-to-Know Law organized by the Nashua Telegraph and InDepthNH.org and held in Nashua.  More details here.

RADIO:

NH public radio:  N.H. Needs Independent Arbiter To Hear Complaints

Girard at-Large:  David Saad on Right to Know NH

RTKNH looks forward to taking part in Sunshine Week again next year and encourages all members of the public who are interested in open government to attend future sunshine week events.  In the meantime, join RTKNH and help us advocate for a more open and transparent government.

Our right to know what our government is doing lasts only as long as our vigilance to insist on it. For RTKNH every week is Sunshine week.  Let the sun shine!

 

 

Right to Know – a public official’s perspective

We wrap up Sunshine week with a guest editorial from Todd Selig, administrator for the town of Durham NH.  Mr. Selig took part in the Sunshine Week panel discussion at the Nackey Loeb Center last monday.  He made these comments to those in attendance.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” – Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776.

The Declaration continues with a long list of grievances against the King …

“He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”

This is clearly the nexus of the Right to Know Law, the rules surrounding meetings and public records.

“He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.” 

An illustration of why public wages and benefits are available for public disclosure!

“He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”

I am probably one of the few “swarms of Officers” presently in a position to harass our people, at least in Durham, but in all honesty, the work I do, and the the work our local elected and appointed officials undertake, is typically not intended to “eat out people’s substance,” but rather to serve our communities, our cemetery trustees, our parks & recreation commissions, our county, or our state, and a long list of other boards, committees, and commissions from 234 towns and cities across NH.

But how do we know that?  How do we know that our officials are in fact doing the public’s business?  The answer lies in the Right-to-Know Law, a statutory framework that ensures that what government does, and more precisely what our government officials do, is done in public, in the light of day, for all to see and understand.

I would argue that the vast majority of elected and appointed officials get involved with government because they care, they want to make a positive difference, and they want to serve their communities in useful ways.

So we have two juxtaposing concepts in play here.  On one hand, we have people getting involved to largely do what they perceive to be good for community.  On the other, we want to ensure that the work those individuals are doing is ultimately accountable to the very people they serve.

The thread that holds this together in balance is RSA 91-A, the Right-to-Know Law.

So some practical thoughts in light of the above:

  1. It has been my experience that most people who get involved in government at the local level have little understanding of the Right-to-Know Law.  They often in fact come from the private sector where information is viewed as proprietary, rather than public.  Operating in public is not necessarily native to them — and it may in fact feel threatening.  What if people don’t like my ideas?  What if I say something that upsets my neighbors?  Wouldn’t working things out in private behind closed doors be a lot easier and more comfortable?  These folks need education, constant reminders, and guidance in terms of understanding and following the laws they have sworn to uphold.  It’s a constant educational process and we all play a part in making sure these well-meaning individuals receive the guidance they need.
  2. Most of the time, if you want information, just ask for it.  Talk with the person who you believe has information and let them know what you are looking for.  This may save you and them a lot of time, effort, and aggravation.
  3. Don’t automatically assume the official you are working with is corrupt, dishonest, or immoral.  Most officials really intend to do well, and when they receive an RSA 91-A request, it is intimidating for them, and not only for you!
  4. It may very well be wrong to conclude that officials who fail to properly post a meeting, make minutes available, or who are engaging in illegal communication outside of a public meeting are knowingly doing so.  Nine out of ten times, I find that it is because the officials are improperly educated in the laws, or were never educated concerning them.
  5. When you do find an RSA 91-A violation, make it plain to those involved.  Hold them accountable, but do so with dignity and respect. Make it a learning moment for all involved!   We want to encourage participation by citizens, not discourage it by making the process so threatening that only special interests — whatever those might be — become involved.
  6. Only when the officials involved warrant being treated as untrustworthy, should you conclude that they are.  And if you do so conclude, RSA 91-A gives some very good ammunition to hold those persons accountable.

In closing, Robert Frost once wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  RSA 91-a is the vehicle we have crafted to keep the proverbial barbarians of secrecy, collusion, personal gain, and general bad behavior at the gate to ensure governmental officials remain accountable to those they serve.

Todd Selig can be reached at tselig@ci.durham.nh.us

A Citizen’s First Step towards Government Accountability

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THIS BLOG POST IS ONE OF SEVERAL GUEST EDITORIALS THAT WILL BE PUBLISHED DURING SUNSHINE WEEK, HIGHLIGHTING THE NEED FOR MORE GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY.  

Author: Patricia Rodrigues

In 2013, NHDOT allowed historic 1848 easement rights in my property deed to be incorrectly utilized and documented in 2 contracts it has with a private family corporation, to improperly access public lands abutting my property – the Historic Cheshire Rail Trail -and this was done without my knowledge nor input and neither the public’s.

Since that time, in my attempts to find out, after-the-fact, how this had happened, and how it can be considered legal, I have filed numerous right to know requests with NHDOT, NHDES, and the towns of Westmoreland and Walpole. Sometimes these various government agencies have fully complied with my right to know requests, but mostly, they have not.

NHDOT has, after being requested three times over 2.5 years, to supply critical documents missing from these contracts concerning my private property and the abutting public property, simply stated they “cannot locate the documents”. In the spring of 2016 NHDOT performed a survey which proves the incorrect representation of my property deed’s 1848 easement rights – even with the documents which are not missing from the contracts.

After paying many thousands of dollars to attorneys since 2013 to pursue other various legal avenues, I have no further resources to take the state of NH to court to produce the missing documents requested via right to know – but they are the final key to further proving that the contracts signed by the state are fraudulent.  This proof would be in addition to other false representations which are already documented and proven within the contracts, as stated above.

The right-to-know law should be the “poor man’s” mechanism to obtaining what should be freely available documents.  These documents and evidence proving government impropriety is only the first step – because then you have to make the government acknowledge what the obtained information shows and, apparently, the truth from right to know obtained information is ignored, and there still is no accountability.

That said, passage of HB 178, which would form a commission to study alternate methods to reduce the burden and costs for ‘ordinary’ citizens like myself, to utilize, besides the only currently available and expensive step of filing in court to make governmental bodies comply with right to know laws, is a critical first step for governmental accountability. Citizens could then save their financial resources for hiring an attorney to fight for citizens’ property and other rights.

To read more information about my case, and to defend all NH citizen’s constitutional rights to defense of property, and all the public’s rights in public lands, and its heritage, please see Facebook pages ‘Cheshire Rail Trail – Keene To Connecticut River’ and ‘CT River-Cheshire Rail Trail’, which include the online petition found at the following link – http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/314/876/815/

As this matter involves the improper use of public lands – The Historic Cheshire Rail Trail – I ask all citizens to contact me to learn how you can help me resolve this injustice and abuse of our public lands, as we all have a right to know.

Patricia Rodriques is a member of Right to Know New Hampshire and resident of Westmoreland.  She can be emailed at patrodgoog@gmail.com

NH Ballots Should Not Be Exempt from Public Records Law

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THIS BLOG POST IS ONE OF SEVERAL GUEST EDITORIALS THAT WILL BE PUBLISHED DURING SUNSHINE WEEK, HIGHLIGHTING THE NEED FOR MORE GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY.  

Author: Deborah Sumner

 

“People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing.” Chief Justice Warren Burger, Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. VA, 448 U.S. 555, 572 (1980)

The legislature specifically exempted voted ballots from RSA 91-A in 2003. Repeal attempts in 2007, 2012 and 2014 failed.

Ballots (or ballot images) should be accessible for public review after election results are certified as they are in other states, including Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin, Wyoming, New York and Colorado. Stripped of this essential right and duty to KNOW our government was legitimately elected, we cannot claim to be a self-governing people.

Some relevant facts:

  1. The NH Constitution and RSA 659:63 mandate that “The Counting of Votes Shall be Public…” Government has a legal duty to protect our public oversight right and cannot interfere with our duty to do so.
  1. AccukVote computers, programmed and serviced by a private corporation, are  vulnerable to both intentional and unintentional error. They now potentially “count” 87.5% of all NH votes with NO public oversight.
  1. Federal law requires 22-month retention for ballots that include federal contests, with the clear intent SOMEONE might actually want to LOOK at them before they are destroyed.

As a pro se litigant, I expected the court would consider these facts and agree that the public’s right of access to voted ballots to ensure government’s legitimacy was more compelling than the attorney general’s argument. I was surprised that the Cheshire Superior Court judge disagreed and shocked when all five members of the NH Supreme Court did!

The court considered only these facts. 1) The legislature (as a co-equal branch of government) exempted ballots so this was a “political” decision, not one for the court to over rule 2) current law required public vote counts. Therefore, it said, the public had an alternative means to ensure transparent elections and public accountability.

Ironically, legislative history shows NO public discussion of why the legislature exempted ballots in 2003. The process violated the principle of openness and public accountability RSA 91-A aims to protect. But that didn’t matter to the court, either.

https://www.facebook.com/ProtectTheCount.NH/posts/1481443001900607

This problem now comes back to the court of public opinion and legislature to solve.

Here’s the basis of it:

For most people most of the time, exemptions specified in RSA 91-A:5 seem reasonable enough. If a citizen disagrees, the court can consider the arguments dealing with specific documents and decide. The government must show its interest in secrecy outweighs the public’s interest in disclosure.

But, under RSA 91-A:4, the legislature applies NO standard to  the “except as otherwise prohibited by statute…” section.

To correct this, any legislative exemption from public records should meet the same “strict scrutiny” standard the court applies when laws infringe on fundamental free speech, voting and self government rights.

To survive that analysis, any exemption must “be justified by a compelling governmental interest and must be necessary to the accomplishment of its legitimate purpose.” Akins v. Secretary of State, 154 N.H. 67 (2006)

Does the government’s interest in keeping the “facts” of our election secret outweigh the public’s interest in knowing reported results are accurate? Is it more compelling  than our right to free, fair elections and self-government? No, of course not.

State officials should work with informed citizens and town officials to develop reasonable guidelines for ballot review. The repeal can allow reimbursement of local costs through the state’s election fund (RSA 5:6-d).

The inalienable right of voters to determine the accuracy of official reporting through open inspection dates back to 1703 English Common Law.

“If the plaintiff has a right, he must of necessity have a means to vindicate and maintain it,,,,” Ashby v. White 92 Eng Rep 126 (KB 1703)

Same battle, different day.

It’s time to move NH ballots from the “government secrets” category into the sunlight. We need to restore public oversight of our public elections and show the world that New Hampshire remains true to the vision of our founders as expressed in Part 1, Article 8 of our state constitution. We are a self-governing people; our elections and public officials are at all times accountable to us.

Deborah Sumner is a member of Right to Know New Hampshire and resident of Jaffrey.  She can be emailed at righttoknownh@gmail.com

NH needs independent arbiter to hear complaints

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To celebrate Sunshine Week, David Saad, president of Right to Know New Hampshire joined NH Public Radio’s Morning Edition to talk about the need for an independent arbiter to hear right to know complaints and discuss a number of other right to know issues.

During the interview David mentions HB178 which passed the House and is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  HB178 will establish a commission to study processes to resolve right to know complaints.

The objective of the commission will be to make recommendations which will:

  1. Encourage resolution of right-to-know complaints directly between citizens and public agencies and bodies.
  2. Reduce the burden and costs of right to know complaints on all parties including the citizens, courts, public agencies, and taxpayers
  3. Increase awareness and compliance with the right-to-know law to minimize violations.

Several other states have established independent arbiters to help resolve right to know complaints and minimize costs for all parties.  This commission is a good first step towards the establishment of an independent arbiter to hear and resolve complaints which would allow for a streamlined and less costly resolution alternative to our court system.

Contact your senator and ask them to support HB178.

 

Listen to the complete interview here.

Public RTK event tonight in Nashua NH

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Join us Tonight, March 16 from 6 to 9 p.m. for a public event at the Hunt Memorial Building at 6 Main St. in Nashua where experts on the state’s public records law will detail how to get them using the state’s right-to-know law, RSA 91-A.

If you are experiencing difficulty getting public records, RTKNH members will be available from 6 to 7 p.m. to discuss your case one-on-one with you.  Just show up with your questions.

At 7 p.m., David Saad, president of Right to Know NH will present an easy-to-understand guide to help you know how to obtain public records and exercise your right to know.

Then, First Amendment Attorney Rick Gagliuso will share his experiences fighting for public records for a variety of news outlets since the 1980s. A panel of news reporters, editors and citizens, including Chris Garofolo from the Telegraph of Nashua, and Nancy West from InDepthNH.org, will also be on hand.

Find more details here.

The event is free and sponsored by The Telegraph of Nashua, InDepthNH.org and the New England First Amendment Coalition.